The advent of September means that a hoard of people are back at University, returning to education, or kick-starting grand plans and personal projects, hand in hand with the September start. And for some, that includes a hefty dissertation to consider.
I’ve had this post title (or something similar) in my blogging notebook pretty much since the second I finished writing my own. And seven years later, I suppose it’s time I actually got round to doing so and divulging some tips and a handy game plan for writing a huge body of work.
To give you a little background, I graduated in 2012 with a First Class Honours bachelors’ degree in Writing Fashion and Culture. Not only did that entail a written dissertation, it included weekly feature hand-ins, the creation of a bonafide magazine and countless essays too. I wrote a LOT.
These days, I write just as much – if not more.
I run my own copywriting and content business where I plan, write and edit around 20,000 words a week. I run this blog, its’ supporting channels and a newsletter which I publish almost daily.
So, you know. I write a LOT.
Read on to learn my tips and download the game plan for writing your dissertation or tackling a large piece of writing.
BEFORE PLANNING OR WRITING:
Create a mind map for your initial ideas
I feel like I always offer this tip as advice in my blog posts, but that’s because I genuinely do swear by them! I even keep a kids’ A3 sketchpad in my office because I make so many mind maps.
At this early stage, you’ve probably been reading around your dissertation or essay topic and are trying to narrow things down. Good! Do as much reading as humanly possible so you can start to not only broaden your horizons beyond what might have originally settled into your brain, but then whittle down your ideas into something particular and something that genuinely piques your interest. I couldn’t recommend more to ensure you select a topic that really interests and inspires you. You’ll be working on this piece of work for several months after all.
Begin by writing ‘dissertation’ in the middle of your sheet of paper. Then note down any vague titles or ideas you may have as your main spokes. At this stage, I tend to have around 5-6 ideas jotted down. This will provide a springboard for you to begin fleshing out each of these ideas.
Now, for each of these ideas, start adding in spokes for quotes you’ve discovered, key ideas you would touch upon on that dissertation title, and any other snippets. Over time, this will help to inform you of where your interests lie and where your reading has naturally taken you. I find at this stage, I’ll have narrowed things down to 2-3 titles.
Once you’ve honed in on THE dissertation title, you’ll want to repeat the process and add lots more to your mind map. This should become your main point of reference when writing, although you’re likely to be building up your notes in a separate document or notebook anyway. Congratulations! You’re one step towards nailing your dissertation.
Set up a references document and quote book/bank
To get ahead of your referencing and the fiddly parts of dissertation writing, I recommend starting up a separate references document on your laptop that is solely for logging your references.
To refresh your memory about referencing systems, this is a brilliant guide.
I also recommend starting a quotes bank, either digitally or in a notebook. This is great for when you’re reading for research and come across a great quote that you’re likely to use, but aren’t sure when. When it comes to writing, you’ll then be able to go through the bank and find the perfect quote to back up your point.
MAKING THE TIME:
Pick up a month-to-view calendar and do some writing maths
The most daunting part of writing a lengthier essay or dissertation is the sheer fact that it is HUGE. A 10,000-word essay isn’t what everybody just pulls out of the bag and certainly requires a little forward planning.
My advice? Pick up a month-to-view calendar and spend a night doing some writing maths. Here’s how:
- Mark all of your key deadlines in the calendar. Your lecturer or tutor will probably give you this.
- Mark in your scheduled tutorials to ensure you never miss one!
- Block out a week or two for initial reading and the above mind mapping task.
- Count up the number of weeks between this period and your proposal deadline. Subtract two weeks for editing and proof-reading. (i.e. 12 weeks – 2 weeks = 10 weeks)
- Divide your proposal word count figure by the number of weeks. (i.e. 2000 words ÷ 10 weeks = 200 words)
- This is your weekly writing target. (i.e. 200 words a week YASSS!)
- Do the same for the time between your proposal hand-in and main body hand-in.
- Cross referencing with your diary (work shifts, lectures, birthday night outs, essential Netflix nights included), block out time specifically devoted to research, note making and writing.
- Stick to your writing targets.
THE ACTUAL WRITING PART:
Write, edit, repeat
At last, we come to the writing part!
Your prep is all complete and you now have an organised calendar propped up at your desk and a manageable workload. It’s time to get writing! And it honestly is as easy as that. Your quotes bank should be making the entire process much easier and your mind map should be guiding your chapters. Oh, and did I mention? Use a separate document for each chapter. It’ll help you to stay focused on your current chapter, so you don’t end up going off on twenty tangents! Don’t forget to regularly update your references document.
Whilst writing, don’t overthink it. Just get a draft down for the week’s planned word count, then revisit it at the end of that week. Of course you can go over the word count (especially if you’re in a good writing flow!), my method is simply to help make it all feel a little more digestible. The redrafting stage is equally as important. Weed out any hanging sentences and chop up those that are too lengthy. Have you included relevant quotes to back up key points? Have you explained clearly why you’ve come to that conclusion?
Once your words are down, it’s time to edit. And boy is this a skill that I’m only just mastering now! First, I recommend you print the entire dissertation out and staple it together. Grab a cuppa, a highlighter and coloured pen, and read through it. Make rough notes, anything that comes to mind when revisiting your own work. Be ruthless. Then, go back and make these edits (with your tutor’s blessing, of course).
You have your second draft.
The next stage is to work through it by chapter. Print off one chapter at a time, clearly write a number by each paragraph (in order). Then, use a pair of scissors to chop it all up into paragraphs. Sit on the floor and read through your work. Is it in the best order for sense, clarity and to hammer home your point? No? Move them around – literally.
I hope these tips have helped to soothe some of your anxiety about an upcoming writing task, and have given you a practical and methodological way to approach it.